On Monday, some 400 Encinitas schoolchildren will pile into buses and head up to Cuyamaca State Park for sixth-grade camp. Their trip will mark the 70th anniversary of this San Diego County tradition.
"As you know, sixth-graders will always try something smart," said Ralph Dotinga, who taught sixth-graders for 32 years in Chula Vista starting in 1958. "But usually on the trip up and on the first day or two, they were in wonder."
The 81-year-old took many a trip up to the Cuyamaca Outdoor School, what the camp is officially called. Dotinga said on his first trip the students stayed in old wooden barracks built for Conservation Corps workers during the Great Depression. Over time they were swapped out for warmer brick buildings.
But Dotinga said one thing never changed.
"Most of the kids, well, it was their first time away from home. There were many that were crying in their sleep because they didn't have a parent to put them to bed," he said. "And by the end of the week they didn't want to go back home. The kids would be crying as they left."
Francisco Santos is the principal at Cesar Chavez Elementary in Southcrest. He went to camp as a student in 1981 and went with his sixth-graders last year. He said the camp looked the same as it did when he was young.
"It's almost like an 'I went there yesterday' kind of thing," Santos said. "It brings you back to those experiences you benefit so much from camp — the social interactions with students from different schools, meeting new friends."
Last year was the first time Chavez Elementary students were able to attend, thanks to donations from Ashford University and others. The camp costs $350 per student, so not all schools go.
Santos said the fundraising effort is worth it. He said he sees noticeable change in students when they get home. Their social skills have improved and they're more inclusive of their classmates.
The San Diego County Office of Education runs the camp and said more than a million San Diegans have spent a week there. We've rounded up memories from some of those campers below.
From Desi Klaar:
I went to sixth grade camp in 1977. I was in Mr. Swallow’s class and was the lucky kid who got to sit in the front seat of his VW microbus on the way to camp. He talked about the flora and fauna on the way up to camp even before the real adventure began.
I remember hiking up a steep trail through rocks and manzanita…oh, the freedom!
I remember sanding my wood down until it was as soft as silk and then adding my name to it…oh, the pride!
I remember seeing more food on the table at each meal than I ever had before…oh, the choices!
I remember the giggles at night and how easily I slipped into sleep…oh, the fresh air!
I remember singing, morning, noon and night…oh, I am a singer today!
I run through the camp when doing trail runs and see that it truly hasn’t changed (other than the fire damage in the recent fires). My three children all went there as well and we all share the same stories of our time there.
From Lynne and Tony Selinka:
Happy anniversary to an education project that has been around for 70 years and is still going strong. Both of my sons attended 6th Grade Camp and loved it. The story I want to tell you about has to do with my son, Travis, who had brain cancer at the age of 10, when he was in the fourth grade.
When sixth Grade Camp time came around, I have to say that we were a little nervous about sending him. He had a compression fracture in his spine, which meant that he could not run and jump. He was on a refrigerated medication that he had to have 30 minutes before he got up in the morning. This meant that someone had to set their alarm early to bring Travis his morning pill. His daily medications needed to be administered after breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Travis also had to have a bandage changed on a wound site daily.
Not the usual camper.
My husband and I have been by Travis' side ever since he got sick, so it was hard to relinquish the responsibility for his care, but it was important that Travis be able to participate. We attended the Cuyamaca Outdoor School open house and met the health technicians. There is something about being able to explain a situation to a person that you just can't write down.
With all of the instructions that came along with him, it was far from the normal scratch or bump that you usually see in a kid. But his care did not skip a beat while at camp. The camp health staff called us nightly, and Travis said he felt he could come to them about anything.
Throughout our journey of Travis being sick, we have met many people that have gone above and beyond for a perfect stranger. We have been so blessed to have Cindy, Sue, and Julie in our lives, and we are truly thankful for Travis' experience in 6th Grade Camp.
Travis is now in 7th grade and has been cancer-free for three years.